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20 October 2015

Waste not, want not!

Day 2 of the conference I spent all day in the parallel sessions of Theme 7: Food Waste.  These sessions covered everything from food losses in the early stages of the supply chain to retail sector and consumer behavior. 

We finished up the day with a Workshop Café entitled “Can social innovation reduce food loss and waste?”  These events were coordinated and chaired by SIANI member Karin Östergren, from the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden.  Lisa Mattsson, from Karlstad University, presented a paper on the waste reduction potential of fresh fruit and vegetables at retail stores, highlighting the role of in-store management in accounting for waste differentials.

Other SIANI members featured in other sessions, among those Ylva Ran from SEI, Magnus Jirström and Hayford Ayerakwa, both from Lund University.  Hayford’s participation in the PhD course at Wageningen in connection with the first Global Food Security Conference in 2013 was partially supported by SIANI.  This year his research Paper on “Urban food insecurity and the contribution of urban agriculture to household food security in small and medium size cities of Ghana” was accepted for presentation in the parallel session for Theme 4 “Adapting production to respond to urban food demands and improved diet quality”

Most sessions during the day addressed the thorny issue of definitions.  Apparently there is quite some controversy over what food loss is and what food waste is.  Our sessions arrived at the following definitions:

Food loss – not fit for human consumption, often referring to the farm level production

Food waste – sub-standard but usable, also resulting from poor storage conditions and often referring to consumer behavior

Read more about definitions and more importantly, how to measure food loss and food waste.

It was incredible to me to be presented with research results that point to how many aspects of production, processing and consumption, indeed all along the food system value chain; there are behaviors which result in waste.  We have plenty of work to do to “clean up” our food system value chains!!

I was particularly impressed by a presentation from an Albanian agricultural economist working with colleagues in Denmark, O. Xhoxhi,  who had analyzed conflicts between farmers and commercial intermediaries and how this resulted in up to 50% losses in specific crops!  The results of this research point to the fact that trust and transparency are the basis of an efficient marketing system; imbalances in power relations result in waste.  This is one of the few times I have seen an econometric model deal with power relations and I am heartened!  Analyses that deal with power relations are often very political and we need losses to be calculated in money term so that policy makers will sit up and pay attention.


Much has been made in the past of the differences between rural and urban areas and we have tended to analyze urban areas in terms of the place where food is sent and industrial inputs for agriculture are sourced.  The diversification of income sources for farming families has long been an issue dear to the hearts of development economists but now we are seeing an ever-increasing emphasis on how agriculture can become a partner for sustainable cities and how urban dwellers can contribute to food production.  While there is an intrinsic tendency on the part of us “aggies” to sniff at apartment dwellers growing tomatoes on their balconies as an input into food security, the every-increasing focus on consumption and nutrition aspects is forcing us to realize that the consumer must be “activated” in some way to participate in the food chain.

One example of the active consumer is the emergence of what are known as “locavores–those who consume locally produced foods.  Growing food on rooftops, balconies and allotments is a healthy pursuit, but specialized and bulk production still needs to come from farms.

Farm size and Productivity

Small holder productivity and access to productive resources has been the major focus of my 40 years as an agricultural professional, or “aggie”, as we abbreviate it.  I keep up with my area of specialization as a matter of course and see my function at these conferences to break out of my comfort zone and learn something new, which I can hopefully pass on to parts of the SIANI sphere of influence.

Still, I cannot help but pass on the fantastic sound bite coined by one of my more imaginative “aggie” colleagues:  “small is beautiful, but micro is awful”.  While this is very catchy to a production economist, I wonder if it is just a little bit unfair to the major strides being made in urban agriculture (see  above) I often think of the allotment movement, victory gardens in world war II and other efforts to increase production and nutrition by down-sizing some aspects of agricultural production.  Perhaps we would all be better off if the strict frontiers between gardening and farming were blurred just a bit.

Land area has traditionally been the focus for measuring both of on-farm productivity and global food production goals.  It can be argued that the focus should be moved from land area to economic (including socio-environmental ) viability and that agriculture and food policy should be size neutral, but there is still a long way to go before we have concrete suggestions on how to do this.

Melinda Fones Sundell blog from the 2nd Global Food Security Conference in Cornell.